Students at UC Santa Cruz Need to Eat More Tuna, Not Less: Administrators Get It Wrong

Imagine sitting in your college dining hall. Your roommate sits down across from you with a bowl of marshmallow-festooned cereal, a slice of pizza, a cheeseburger, and some ice cream. As he announces that he is redistributing the pepperoni on his slice so there is a bit in every bite, he looks at your meal in horror. “Don’t you realize that’s unhealthy?” he asks, motioning to the marinated albacore in your salad.


University of California Santa Cruz “Study” is Flawed

This scenario just got a whole lot more real recently when University of California Santa Cruz administrators took the absurd step of announcing labels on tuna products in dining halls with warnings about the “risks” of consuming tuna that could contain mercury. The move comes after an activist, who is now an adjunct professor at the school, released a survey of tuna consumption by students that purportedly found “raised” mercury levels in some.

But the UC Santa Cruz study is flawed and unscientific. It sampled 61 students over just two months during two different years, too small a number over too brief an interval to draw substantive conclusions, let alone build policy around. And nutrition studies based on self-reporting are often inaccurate, given that people’s guesses about their food consumption are skewed—can they be certain, for example, the fish they ate was tuna? What kind?

On top of the poor research quality, the clear bias of the lead researcher should dismiss her findings. Myra Finkelstein is currently an adjunct associate professor at UC Santa Cruz. She is also a board member of Turtle Island Restoration Network, creators of a project designed to scare consumers away from eating seafood called “Got Mercury?” Prior to this, she was a part of the group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which was founded by a Greenpeace alum and even labeled an “eco-terrorist” group by the Japanese government. This severe conflict should have been disclosed in the study. Finkelstein does not appear to be a dispassionate researcher.

Seafood 101

The reality is that there has never been a single case of mercury poisoning from normal commercial seafood consumption documented in any U.S. medical journal. A team of scientists and FDA advisors reviewed an exhaustive body of research on mercury risk compared to the beneficial nutrients in fish. They strongly concluded that “consistent evidence shows that the health benefits from consuming a variety of seafood in the amounts recommended outweigh the health risks associated with methyl mercury” (USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans).

Make no mistake: Tuna is healthy. UC Santa Cruz officials are letting bad science guide policy decisions that will cause their students real harm.

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans urges consumers to eat more fish, including tuna. Why? Because seafood’s omega-3 fatty acids, lean proteins, vitamins, minerals strengthen the heart and brain. Growing bodies need proteins and omega-3s play an essential part in healthy brain and eye development. The USDA also recommends that Americans eat at least two to three servings of seafood per week.

So what happens if students listen to administrators who base these decisions of a single, flawed study? They’ll fall into the same trap that the FDA has warned about, that most Americans are eating dangerously low amounts of seafood, a deficiency they say contributes to nearly 84,000 preventable deaths each year. Another long-term study showed that children whose mothers ate three to four servings of fish a week had IQ scores that were 2.8 percent higher than those whose mothers ate less fish.

Studies like the ones at UC Santa Cruz are precisely what the National Academy of Sciences had in mind when they found that distorted and alarmist information is leading to reduced consumption of the very kinds of food students should be eating.

If you don’t put sound science first, you put students at risk. Let the students maintain a healthy diet. Let them eat their tuna in peace.